Town towers give chimney swifts a place to roost

Barbara Hootman

So many chimneys in Black Mountain have been capped or removed in the past several years that a public-private effort has been created to give chimney swifts some place to sleep as they migrate for the winter.

Town workers Gabe Martin, left, and Chris Sloan help Chris Mundy (not visible, on the tractor) erect a tower for chimney swifts near Black Mountain Library.

Artist Libba Tracy led the effort to have the town build two 14-foot-tall towers to house the birds next fall, if not this fall. One tower is at the Black Mountain Library, and the other is close to the croquet court by Black Mountain Golf Course.

Once common in North America, chimney swiftsroosted in caves and hollowed-out trees until Europeans settling the continent built houses with chimneys. Swirling by the hundreds above chimneys at dusk, the swifts dive in quick succession into the openings, a spellbinding sight for onlookers. Inside the chimneys, the birds cling to the sides with their feet.

Their numbers have dwindled in recent years, something many bird experts attribute to a shift to metal-lined chimneys. Chimney swifts have been protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act since 1918.

In Black Mountain, Tracy has previously mounted campaigns to protect bees and butterflies. Concerned about chimney swifts, she met in June with town manager Matt Settlemyer, Black Mountain Recreation and Parks director Casey O’Connor, Black Mountain Center for the Arts director Gale Jackson and town public services director Jamey Matthews.

“I explained what was happening to the chimney swifts and that I wanted help in building two towers for them to nest and roost in as a community project,” Tracy said.  “Settlemyer and the others were supportive of the project from the start. Sue Cameron, who works with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, volunteered to work with the group on her time off from her job. It was amazing how fast everything came together."

Partnering with the town and the arts center were Audubon North Carolina, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society to create the two towers.

"As far as I know, Black Mountain is the only town in N.C. to partner with private organizations to fund and build swift chimneys," Settlemyer said.  Materials for each of the chimneys cost about $700. Public Services workers Gabe Martin, Chris Sloan and Chris Mundy built and installed them. “They did an excellent job,” Tracy said. “Their pride in the project shows in their workmanship."

Audubon North Carolina is designing signs to help the public better understand and appreciate the chimney swifts, Settlemyer said.

Jackson and Tracy said the towers should offer people lots of entertainment in the dusky hours between afternoon and evening when the birds swirl and plunge. The two sites were chosen because they were already in the swifts' flight paths, according to Tom Tribble, president of the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society. (The chimney at the Carver Center is already an established chimney swift refuge.)

"To my knowledge, this is the first time a municipality has built chimney swift towers in North Carolina," Tribble said. "A lot of praise goes to Settlemyer and his staff. There have been close to $900 contributed from the partnerships and private donations."

It may be too late this year for chimney swifts to use the Black Mountain towers, said photographer James Poling, vice president of the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society. “But pairs will be looking for nesting sites next May, so the chimneys make Black Mountain a more bird-friendly town," he said.

“Chimney swifts as a species have declined by over 60 percent in the last 40 years, and I hope this project raises awareness about the plight of these birds and how people can help,”Cameron said. “In addition to building towers, people can help swifts by leaving their mason and stone chimneys in place and uncapped at least from late spring through fall when the swifts are here."